The five major theories of how people “learn”: a synopsis

Carlton Reeve has written an excellent series of five articles in Play with Learning which compares and contrasts the 5 main theories of learning (Behaviourism, Cognitivism, Constructivist, Experientialism and Social Learning) which underpin personal learning. Carlton also identifies different computer games founded on each theory. I have produced a short synopsis here with links to the 5 original articles which are well worth studying.
Each of these 5 theories (or modes) has its place in learning. In fact the most effective learning will likely contain some element of each mode. For example, this blending of learning modes is used in our portfolio of Business Simulation Games to develop highly effective Leadership and Management skills when combined with facilitation and learning in teams.

Over the years, academics have proposed a number of theories to describe and explain the learning process – these can be grouped into five broad categories:

  1. Behaviourist
  2. Cognitivist
  3. Constructivist
  4. Experiential
  5. Social and contextual

If you are designing a learning intervention you can use this to assess how well the intervention covers “learning fundamentals” identified by each of the theories.
Key behaviourist thinkers including Thorndike, Pavlov and Skinner have hypothesized that learning is a change in observable behaviour caused by external stimuli in the environment. The key principle of Behaviourism is the reward or punishment of a new behaviour, commonly described as the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to learning. More….

Cognitivism replaced Behaviourism as the dominant learning paradigm in the 1960s and proposes that learning comes from mental activity such as memory, motivation, thinking and reflection. Cognitivism focuses on the transmission of information from someone who knows (such as an ‘expert’ as opposed to facilitators) to learners who do not know. More ….

From the constructivist perspective, learning is not a stimulus-response phenomenon as described by Behaviourism, rather it requires self-regulation and the building of conceptual structures through reflection and abstraction. The learner takes an active role in constructing his own understanding rather than receiving it from someone who knows, learning through observation, processing and interpretation.

One of the key theorists of experiential learning is David Kolb who developed his experiential model, as opposed to a purer cognitive which formally recognised that people learn from experience and described learning as following a cycle of experiential stages. More….

Social and Contextual
In the Social and Contextual approach, learning does not occur solely within the learner, but in the group and community in which they work. Learning is a shared process which takes place through observing, working together and being part of a larger group, which includes colleagues of varying levels of experience, able to stimulate each other’s development. More….

Carlton Reeve blogs at Play with Learning.